Tahereh Sheerazie is Head Gardener at Arlington Garden. In this travelogue, she shares her experience hiking through the 2022 monsoons in Chitral, Pakistan that caused record-breaking flooding and describes some of the resilient people and landscapes she met in the high mountains.
We knew it would rain in Chitral (Pakistan) for the first week of our scheduled trek. Our guide Ishfaq was convinced the rain would last only a day or two, so we took our chances. We had picked the end of August to do the journey, since locals had told us it’s the best time of the year to visit Chitral. The monsoons would have subsided; the weather would not be too cold nor too hot; and most of the crowds would have left, since schools reopen in mid-August. It turns out that the monsoons had not let up. But the crowds had definitely left!
There were five of us flying into Islamabad. Two 30-somethings Nargis and Steve, and three 60-70-somethings, Kamila, Naveen and myself. It had been raining in Karachi all of July and most of August, roads flooded and torn up, constant traffic jams, skyrocketing food prices, and general fatigue from the non-stop rain that the earth had no room to absorb. Reports of serious flooding in interior Sindh were on the news daily. The clogged city drains were beyond overflowing.
Escaping to a relatively dry Chitral sounded good, where the monsoons are gentle and would be nearly finished; in any event, Chitral had suffered years of extreme heat and drought, so the likelihood of being stuck in any monsoon was slim at best.
Our flight from Islamabad to Chitral was canceled – in retrospect, that was red flag #1 – but a road trip in an air-conditioned SUV with friends didn’t seem like a terrible alternative. In fact, the drive was beautiful all the way. Once we had arrived at Hindukush Heights hotel in Chitral – to luxurious accommodations with warm showers, clean beds, and a superb dinner and breakfast – our judgment was fogged further. The next morning, the gray sky troubled only our jeep driver as we drew closer to Chaghbini’s Forest Service Inspection Hut: the starting point of our trek in Chitral Gol National Park.
The low-hanging clouds and drizzle also worried the forest rangers at the Inspection Hut who tried to dissuade us from leaving in the rain. But, expecting only more light drizzle and otherwise dry barren slopes, we went anyway. Our ten porters and cook were driving up to meet us at the inspection hut, most of whom, as we found out later, were as new to the park as we were. Young, energetic, and cheerful, average age 25, they were mostly from Ishfaq’s village of Bumbarete and were as excited as we were to start the journey.
We spent that first day and the next, ricocheting between euphoria and frustration. We were trekking through a remote area of the Hindukush mountains in scenery reminiscent of a Chinese painting; we spent our time gazing at jagged mountain tops, majestic cedars, pines and holly oaks, clouds, fog, rain dancing in and out of the valleys, and plants that looked and smelled so familiar from our treks in the San Gabriel Mountains but not quite. What we weren’t paying attention to was the erosion from recent rains clearly visible along the ravines and stream beds. It rained all night at our first campsite. This was red flag #2.
The next morning the rain let up just long enough for us to break camp and begin the climb up to Gokhshal An (pass).
By the time we got to the pass it was raining and windy. Steve, Nargis and the chef had been waiting for us for over an hour, shivering, cold and hungry in a tent hurriedly put up for shelter. On our arrival, hot chapatti and vegetable curry was whipped up miraculously by the chef as the wind blew around us, and we huddled together.
Drenched and tired — hoping for the best while worrying about the worst — was soon to be our new normal, blurring the beauty of the wild and our ‘adventure’. Our crew’s positive, cheerful demeanor left us happy and relieved that we’d made it safely up the 3720 m Ghokhshal An (pass) and miraculously down a mountain of shifting wet scree to a warm game-watcher’s hut at Gokhshal meadow.
At Gokhshal meadow, continuous rain forced us to stay put for three nights. We’d thought we’d signed up for a smooth trek in a remote area that most foreigners don’t see: a ‘virgin’ trek as Ishfaq termed it. We ended up in a freak monsoon that changed our best laid plans. Our ten day itinerary was reduced to five days focused on getting out of the park!
Sitting around wood fires; drinking endless cups of goat milk laced chai; eating copious amounts of goat everything; singing; dancing; embroidering on scraps of fabric (Naveen had an an art project in the making); painting; reading (Empire of Ants was our nightly bedside story read by Kamila); searching for wild mushrooms; shopping for goats from the Gujjar (nomadic) shepherd, plus getting goat cheese, lassi and yogurt for good measure; and best of all getting to know the forest and each other while waiting for the sky to clear. We got the chance to discover a little sliver of Gokhshal meadow, and learned to respect and honor the place and our crew.
For the next three days Ishfaq would tell us that the rain would let up ‘tomorrow’. Instead, on day two, two junior forest rangers showed up in pouring rain. They’d been sent to ‘help’ us, in case we needed ‘help’. They too fell into our routine of hanging out between meals and forest walks, drinking chai, and chit chatting with our crew. In reality, they’d been sent down by the forest service inspector to be sure we were safe or their necks would be at risk for letting us go beyond Chaghbini in the first place!
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, our families were losing sleep over our safety. We had no satellite phones or inkling of the devastating rains that had pounded the country since we’d left Chitral city. The scale and magnitude of the monsoons that had devastated a third of the country’s prime farmland later came as shocking news to us. We were sitting safely and comfortably in a beautiful remote meadow, burning wood to keep ourselves warm and fed, while thousands of people were being displaced by floods.
The rain broke on the fourth day, and we began the rest of the journey to the next pass (Dooni An) and eventually to the Kalasha village of Bumburate: a stunning and perilous experience. It was on our walk out that we began to notice the washed out trails and the now raging rivers. We went up and down passes and valleys, crossing raging rivers flush with rainwater and run-off. Our porters were constantly creating makeshift bridges and trails which they built on top of rain-soaked scree. Our company saw Markhor (Capra falconeri screw-horned goat) and Chikor (Lerwa lerwa, snow partridge) on the craggy peaks.
The area around us was a protected National Forest, but the unpredictable weather patterns, in addition to years of illegal logging, had contributed to the sad diminishment of the forest. It was now largely denuded of its lush pine (chilghoza), oak, and deodar cedar trees. Giant tree stumps and piled-up logs lay in plain sight, many of them cut with chainsaws. Some of these would be sold legally, while others would be carried downstream by the timber mafia, which operates in cahoots with the authorities. This information we gleaned as we walked along.
Once we crossed Chitral Gol NP we began our descent into Rumbur, the first of the Kalasha valleys. Here we met villagers who had walked for miles to cut wood for fuel, as we had in the meadow, to keep themselves warm and fed.
Chitral’s glaciers in the Hindukush and Karakorum mountains are the world’s fastest melting glaciers: the cause of catastrophic disasters. Though they contribute less than 1% to the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions, communities like the ones we were hiking through are highly exposed to the effects of climate change. Exacerbating the problem is the disruption of traditional lifestyles, which has various causes, as well as global apathy about climate change.
Our journey ended in the Kalasha valley of Bumburate at Ishfaq’s Happy Guest House. Here we spent the next two days being fed more great food, walks, visits and regaled with Chitrali music and dance. It was also here that we first saw all the worried emails and messages from our friends and family. Red flag # 3!
But we were too busy enjoying the Kalasha people and their unique lifestyle and hospitality to pay it much mind. The Kalasha are an ancient tribe believed to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s army. More likely they are indigenous tribes from Kafiristan (present day Nuristan) in neighboring Afghanistan.
Home to Ishfaq and eight of our crew members, Bumburate valley, is picturesque to a fault. We visited some of their homes and met their worried family members. Ishfaq walked us practically through the length and breath of his village, treating us to its history, geography, and culture. His mother cooked us our last meal in Chitral: a traditional Chitrali bean soup, cheese filled bread, and rice; all laced with walnuts or walnut oil in some fashion.
We (the girls) were each gifted with a markhor horn and a hand painted ring. Steve received a woolen Chitrali cap, and a bag of Super Markhor brand salt which was given to each of us: a reminder that we’d now tasted the salt of the land and would be forever connected to Chitral Gol National Park and our newly made Chitrali friends.
I hope to go back again soon, perhaps to experience the wildflowers in spring or snow in winter. Either way, in my travels to these far-flung mountain communities, as Dervla Murphy once put it, ‘I’d like to be remembered as someone who was interested in the ordinary people of whatever country I was in’. To which I’d add, ‘even in the most extraordinary circumstances!’
Red flags beckoning me to keep walking. (Tahereh Sheerazie)